How do you hand back papers?


I was chatting with colleagues about the mechanics of handing back papers to students. How do you do this?

As a class gets bigger, the more time it takes to return assignments and exams back to students. And at some point, you hit a threshold where it’s just impracticable.

This is an issue that some people are handling very poorly, and others are struggling to handle well.

When I was in college, in the early ’90s, one common approach in bigger classes was to simply alphabetize the papers, and array them out on a table, and students would just go pick up their own exams. Usually with the exam scores just sitting there for everybody to see. (I also remember the scores of placement exams being posted on a board next to everybody’s name, too.) This is a clear FERPA violation, and it’s clear that students who did poorly on the exam don’t want everybody shuffling through the exams and inadvertently (or not) seeing their scores. I suppose if the scores are not readily visible, then this might be okay.

Another approach to avoid violating FERPA is to have students fill out assignments using their student ID number and not their name. Is anybody doing this?

I know some instructors distribute exams without keeping scores private. This is illegal in the US, and regardless of the law, it’s not a good thing to do. There’s no way that a student will perform better as a consequence of shaming them by exposing their scores to their peers. If you’re doing this, please stop. There’s no valid excuse.

Handing back papers directly to students is a great way to learn names early in the semester, but it also takes a lot of instructional time. Let’s say a course has 50 students. If we round down and estimate that it takes just 5 seconds to return a paper to each student, and you did this twice per week in a 15 week semester, you would burn two hours of instructional time, just handing back papers.

Of course, the need to hand papers back to students has declined over the years, as more and more of this can be done online. If you’re using the LMS, then students can receive their scores online, and you can just not hand them back to students unless they specifically request it. Or the entire assignment can be done online. The only time you really need to hand papers back to students is if they require some feedback.

Frequent assessment is important, but if this involves you handing things back to students frequently in a large class, this is a real barrier to giving frequent feedback in this manner. There are plenty of ways for students to receive feedback on their performance without having to hand back graded papers, but this is a classic approach that is still useful for a lot of us.

How do you deal with the issue of student privacy and the time constraints of handing back student work? How does it vary with class size?

10 thoughts on “How do you hand back papers?

  1. I love using a modified form of Immediate Feedback Assessment. I keep tests shorter, collect them, then immediately review answers in the same class period. Students can shout out answers and ask questions. They also keep track of their own scores (I post on LMS when graded) and I don’t hand back assessments. Students wishing for more review time, can come to office hours. Even with 500 students, this works well. Students have fun shouting answers and I get student feedback on questions that may have been unclear.

  2. Especially at the beginning of the semester I find it helps ME so much to take the time to hand back papers individually to learn names as soon as I can, usually first 3-4 meetings (my classes are usually no bigger than 50 tho).
    Sometime I have classes where I teach lab and lecture, and save all papers for lab time to pass back (since there is more room to move). But when I do pass back in lecture, I do it while students are working on something: warm up problems at the beginning of class, or reflection thing at the end of class.

    For exams, I’m always tweaking the cover/reference page, so that the name and any scoring are on separate pages or page faces. This gives privacy when returning stuff, but it also keeps me from any unwanted bias when grading, at least until I start recognizing their handwriting…

  3. If the assignment is at least 2 stapled pages, why not just write the grade on the second page or the inside of the first page? Even if some students would like to snoop on others’ work, social shame should prevent them from snooping if they’re picking up their exams in a public group of all their classmates.

  4. I find I also need to hand back papers to learn names effectively, but that’s only really practical in labs/upper-level courses with only 10-20 students.

    For larger classes (30-60 students), I used to only hand back assignments with exams – so only 2-3 times a semester. I realized this meant that students weren’t getting feedback, so I tried the “lay out on the table and let students find their own” but only writing my comments on the papers, posting the scores only in the LMS. Or using multi-page assignments and not putting the score on the front page so it cannot be seen casually. But even with those, the time spent grading and handing back got a bit overwhelming – I’ve regressed to giving only extra credit points for homeworks/in-class exercises and giving general feedback to the whole class after they’ve had time to work on the problems/exercises.

    For term papers and similar, I like the LMS feedback option – I can post comments to the students online, and if I want to make specific comments, annotated versions (through the LMS or uploaded as assignment feedback) work. My worry with those is that students have to specifically choose to read them, so they might miss that comments were made while the ones on the hardcopy papers are harder to miss…

  5. I used to teach calculus in sections of 200-440. Class met three days per week with no recitations. I assigned homework daily but collected it every other class meeting (so everyone had a several days to ask questions). To satisfy FERPA, students who gave permission to have me pass homework back in class got it there; students who were not comfortable with this got homework back in my office hours. The homework reader wrote scores on the inside, papers folded in half vertically with the student’s number (1-3 digits, assigned by me at the start of the term) written on the outside. I bundled papers in sheafs of 50, labelled 1-50, 51-100, etc., with a piece of paper wrapped around the bundle and held together with a rubber band, then passed bundles around in class. I labelled one additional bundle “old stuff” and used it for unclaimed papers.

  6. most of the assignments and exams I grade are electronic, I can add comments there (whether its an essay like assignment or code) and return the graded version by email with a couple of automated scripts that send out the emails for me. but I do run a pen and paper quiz on the previous class material at the beginning of each class (yes… I do: it does wonders to maintain attendance high and make sure they review the material timely!) and I return it in the following class (or try to). I had this exact issue and one of my TAs came up with the simplest solution, the same that Carol Hom had the same solution above: folding the papers so that the grade is not visible and using the University ID instead of the name. They picked up the papers over the break, so the TAs would see if someone was unfoding them. Unclaimed papers were kept in my office.

  7. We use the student ID instead of their name. Also, we have individual student folders where all their assignments go in when graded, then students pick up their folders at the beginning of the class.

    For learning their names, we create small name tags placed on their desks using index cards. After a couple of weeks, we have a good idea of who is who.

  8. “Or the entire assignment can be done online. The only time you really need to hand papers back to students is if they require some feedback.”

    Almost all of our assignments and short tests are done online and the Blackboard-based system that we use allows us to annotate papers and provide feedback, both written and recorded verbal. I sometimes miss the days of writing illegibly on papers in green ink…..but not often!

  9. Just adding in some comments from twitter. One thing that came up, which I was going to put in the post but then forgot, is the idea of doing the return of paperwork when students are doing pair or group work, which then wouldn’t be a loss of time (though I’m not sure how distracting returning the papers would be from the work itself, though once you learn everybody’s name, you could do it without disturbing them so much.)

    Anyway, I rarely paste in comments from twitter unless I think it’s particularly useful or important, but this time I just wanted to show all of them that arrived in (except for a few that weren’t really on any kind of point) just to illustrate how more and different remarks happen there.

  10. Small class (~25 students): Student ID’s as the only identifying information (I do this so grading is blinded as well) and scores on the back (so not visible). For problem sets, graded items are placed on a front desk for students to pick up before or after class starts. For essay assignments, I email back with comments and a graded rubric. For talks, I meet with students individually to give feedback and their graded rubric.

    Large class (~250 students): Grades (from scantron exams) are posted online and are only accessible by student login/password. If students want to know their actual answers, I email or print them them if asked.

Leave a Reply